The Use of SPICE

One of the best ways to learn how things work is to follow the inductive approach: to observe specific instances of things working and derive general conclusions from those observations. In science education, labwork is the traditionally accepted venue for this type of learning, although in many cases labs are designed by educators to reinforce principles previously learned through lecture or textbook reading, rather than to allow the student to learn on their own through a truly exploratory process.

Having taught myself most of the electronics that I know, I appreciate the sense of frustration students may have in teaching themselves from books. Although electronic components are typically inexpensive, not everyone has the means or opportunity to set up a laboratory in their own homes, and when things go wrong there's no one to ask for help. Most textbooks seem to approach the task of education from a deductive perspective: tell the student how things are supposed to work, then apply those principles to specific instances that the student may or may not be able to explore by themselves. The inductive approach, as useful as it is, is hard to find in the pages of a book.

However, textbooks don't have to be this way. I discovered this when I started to learn a computer program called SPICE. It is a text-based piece of software intended to model circuits and provide analyses of voltage, current, frequency, etc. Although nothing is quite as good as building real circuits to gain knowledge in electronics, computer simulation is an excellent alternative. In learning how to use this powerful tool, I made a discovery: SPICE could be used within a textbook to present circuit simulations to allow students to “observe”the phenomena for themselves. This way, the readers could learn the concepts inductively (by interpreting SPICE's output) as well as deductively (by interpreting my explanations). Furthermore, in seeing SPICE used over and over again, they should be able to understand how to use it themselves, providing a perfectly safe means of experimentation on their own computers with circuit simulations of their own design.

Another advantage to including computer analyses in a textbook is the empirical verification it adds to the concepts presented. Without demonstrations, the reader is left to take the author's statements on faith, trusting that what has been written is indeed accurate. The problem with faith, of course, is that it is only as good as the authority in which it is placed and the accuracy of interpretation through which it is understood. Authors, like all human beings, are liable to err and/or communicate poorly. With demonstrations, however, the reader can immediately see for themselves that what the author describes is indeed true. Demonstrations also serve to clarify the meaning of the text with concrete examples.

SPICE is introduced early in volume I (DC) of this book series, and hopefully in a gentle enough way that it doesn't create confusion. For those wishing to learn more, a chapter in the Reference volume (volume V) contains an overview of SPICE with many example circuits. There may be more flashy (graphic) circuit simulation programs in existence, but SPICE is free, a virtue complementing the charitable philosophy of this book very nicely.

Lessons In Electric Circuits copyright (C) 2000-2020 Tony R. Kuphaldt, under the terms and conditions of the CC BY License.

See the Design Science License (Appendix 3) for details regarding copying and distribution.

Revised July 25, 2007

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